About twenty minutes in, I was begging my husband to let me shut it off. I’d rather watch third-string Saturday evening crime dramas than have to bear the pain and frustration of this movie for another minute. He was fascinated and watched intently even as I squirmed on the couch beside him.
Based on a true story, The Changeling is a film that threatens to tear you in half as you witness relentless power of the the heartless, misogynistic political and legal machine that was 1920s Los Angeles. The police return a stranger to a mother whose son has been kidnapped, forcing her to claim the impostor as her own and question something that should never be questioned: her ability to know her own child. When she refuses to break before their authority and continues to protest that her son is still out there, missing, the authorities do everything to discredit her: declare her selfish, unfit, conniving, insane. To watch the sadistically manipulative power of the doctor at the state mental institution to which she is committed is maddening beyond belief.
The more I wanted to leap out of my skin the clearer it became that a) this was quite the movie if it could get to me in this way, and b) there was something in the plot that I had to face in myself.
What was it that challenged me the most? Powerlessness? Ruthlessness? Unreasonableness? Arrogance? Wanton blindness? Humanity’s ability to be inhumane? The value of the establishment over the dignity of the individual?
They all combine to be a bitter, bitter cocktail, but it is the first sin on that list that made me want to run from the spectacle of suffering before me.
So many modern self-help texts and teachers talk about the way to personal empowerment. It is a clever enough buzzword that is as essential as it is destructive. Victimhood does not serve us at all; we all have to drop the chains of the beleaguered party in order to take full responsibility for our lives. At the same time, it is an illusion of sorts to believe that we have power over every aspect of our lives. To believe in a higher power is to know that we do not hold all of the cards, even those that directly influence our own fate.
And yet, I find myself warring against my feelings of powerless all the time. Right now, one of the greatest challenges I struggle with each day is watching my husband grimace from the constant back pain that has marred our lives for the last two straight months. The shooting nerve pains that keep him from sleeping, sitting, and standing in peace have sapped the joy and ease out of life. As a wife and as a healer, I constantly struggle with the fact that my will to fix him and my fervent prayers for his recovery have offered negligible results. I know that he bears the infinitely greater burden, but I find myself wrapped in my own vicarious hell as I mourn the easy laughter and decry my own abilities and those of a benevolent God to offer him some relief.
To watch Angelina Jolie’s character struggle with seemingly indomitable forces who cared nothing for her story or for the truth was to see a dramatized life-or-death version of my own battles. I don’t want to give away too much of the film, but I will say that I am left with the awareness that life offers neither pure victory or utter defeat. There is joy and hope in every moment, and we must chose that over limitation and agony.
I have not conquered all of the self-pitying parts of me that believe that my husband and I are a four legged Sisyphus, pushing against his pain only to have it well up again each morning. But to look at that thought in writing makes me tired of my own defeatism.
There is a link between powerlessness and the ability to accept reality as it is at this very minute. I need to think through that connection more deeply, but I believe that the way forward for me is accept that this hurt exists for him and that it affects me deeply, but that the pain in this moment does not mean that every other moment that follows will be marred in the same way.